×

New Incubator Aims to Grow Tech, Business Startups in Springfield, Vt.

  • Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation, speaks during an event to announce that $1 million has been raised toward starting the Black River Innovation Campus, or BRIC, at the Copper Fox restaurant in Springfield, Vt., Tuesday, September 18, 2018. The BRIC will combine computer science education, job training and entrepreneurship, and is eyeing the Park Street School in Springfield as its home. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) waits to speak during the announcement of a $1 million funding goal reached by the Springfield Regional Development Corporation and CORI toward their effort to start a computer science education, job training and entrepreneurship, incubator in Springfield, Vt., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Video game entrepreneur Marguerite Dibble hugs Matt Dunne, founder of the Center on Rural Innovation, after speaking at an event to announce the start of a computer science education, job training and entrepreneurship incubator in Springfield, Vt., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Park Street School sits on a hillside above shuttered mill buildings in Springfield, Vt., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. The Springfield Regional Development Corporation and the Center on Rural Innovation have shown interest in making the building the home of their computer science education, job training and entrepreneurship initiative called the Black River Innovation Campus. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Springfield, Vt. — Springfield once was renowned as a center of the machine tool industry. Now an alliance of nonprofits and town officials say they have taken a big step in making it known as a hub for the digital economy.

A mix of spirited citizens and politicians on Tuesday unveiled what they call the Black River Innovation Campus, which they said will foster computer science education and digital training in Springfield schools and provide co-working space for technology companies based elsewhere, as well as residential apartments for workers and an “entrepreneurship center” to offer training and funding for people with ideas to launch digital businesses and social enterprises.

“We have all seen the numbers that small-town America has not recovered from the recession,” said Matt Dunne, executive director of the Hartland-based Center on Rural Innovation, which helped to secure the $1 million in funding from private and public sources to finance the initiative that he said has been two years in the making.

“In the age of the internet, there should be no limit to where innovation and entrepreneurship can thrive,” Dunne said during a packed news conference at the Copper Fox restaurant on Springfield’s Main Street that was attended by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, area politicians and a host of civic and business leaders from the community.

Taking advantage of Springfield’s fiber-optic gigabit broadband network that was built by local telephone company VTel with federal government stimulus funding a few years ago, the “campus” — which for the foreseeable future will be scattered in available office spaces and apartments around town before being located at Springfield’s former Park Street School — will be a hub to train people in digital skills for a new economy and provide technical, management and financial support for digital startup companies.

“The No. 1 priority is the redevelopment of downtown, and this project certainly does that,” Springfield Town Manager Tom Yennerell said.

Springfield, like other towns along the Connecticut River Valley, lost thousands of jobs during the exodus of manufacturing from the region over the past 30 years.

In many cases, towns on both sides of the river still are dealing with the scars — in Springfield, the former Bryant Chucking Grinder Co. and Fellows Gear Shaper plant, which covers an area of nearly 14 football fields, sit derelict on the outskirts of town and are slated for demolition.

Dunne has partnered with the Springfield Regional Development Corp. to design a plan that seeks to make Springfield a seedbed for the digital economy in the Eastern half of the state (Burlington in Chittenden County, with its youthful college town population, already is serving that function on the Western side).

Bob Flint, executive director of SRDC, and Dunne eventually expect the Black River Innovation Campus, or BRIC, will be consolidated at the Park Street School.

“It all ends in a proper campus, but that’s a more complicated project,” Flint said about acquiring and renovating the school, which he expects will cost $25 million to complete. “In the meantime, these pieces we have now are ready to launch.”

With financial support from BRIC, the Springfield School District plans to introduce a computer science program in order to reach those students who are left behind in learning digital skills due to economic reasons.

The educational program will include robotics clubs, “hackathons,” coding classes and mentorships, and will be staffed by instructors who are paid through BRIC funding.

“One of the challenges in the community is socioeconomic,” said Flint, who grew up in Springfield and has been championing efforts to economically revive his hometown. “We want to take care of our own and make them part of this and to have some of them eventually become entrepreneurs.”

While an earlier high school generation would have been expected to enroll in home economics, typing or shop class, Dunne said students today require an entirely different set of skills to land a decent-paying job.

“This isn’t easy work,” Dunne acknowledged. “It requires that we insist all of our children have knowledge of coding.”

National and regional organizations that have funded the initial $1 million seed money include the New York-based Siegel Family Endowment, which has given $250,000, and the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which gave $215,000.

On Tuesday, BRIC also announced that it already has its first tech company that has agreed to hire staff to work remotely in Springfield.

PurposeLab, a California-based company that designs mobile apps, content and e-commerce platforms, will employ 24 software developers over the next year, Flint and Dunne said.

BRIC will select and train the entry-level programmers who will work and live in organization-supplied accommodations.

Gov. Scott said that while the digital economy and economic recovery has advanced in Chittenden County, “the other 13 counties (in Vermont) are struggling.”

Scott, who has made the issue of stopping the migration of young and educated workers out of the state one of the priorities of his administration, said Vermont still is losing an average of four workers every day — nonetheless down from six per day last year.

“We have fewer workers in our workforce today than in 2009,” he said. “Providing high-paying digital jobs will build on the progress we’re making.” Springfield’s initiative, he predicted, “will have a positive impact on our workforce.”

BRIC hopes the “entrepreneurship center” will incubate startup tech businesses aided by a network of funding, mentorship and training, similar to how Dartmouth College’s Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network helps students to develop their entrepreneurial ideas into businesses with the help of college alumni.

Dartmouth also will provide resources to support BRIC’s program, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman — a longtime friend of Dunne’s — has agreed to lend mentorship support.

Other organizations that have provided seed funding for BRIC are the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, the Windham Foundation, Vermont Community Foundation, Vermont Technology Council, VTel, Vermont Department of Commerce and the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.

The Center on Rural Innovation, which Dunne — a former state legislator and candidate for governor — launched in 2016 after stepping down as Google’s head of community affairs, is seeking to build a network of tech hubs in rural communities around the country. Springfield represents the pilot in a program that he foresees as a way to revitalize rural communities and small towns left behind in the shift to a global economy.

“Springfield is our first place and an obvious place to do this because of its high-speed internet and because of the town’s incredible leadership — the Selectboard, town manager, School Board, the regional development corporation. (Those) are key pieces to making something like this actually happen, especially when you are trying to do something that creates momentum,” Dunne said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.